*Scripture verses covered in this section's commentary are noted in italics

John 18:39-40 meaning

Verses covered in this passage:

  • John 18:39
  • John 18:40

“The Passover Pardon”: Pilate’s Second Attempt to Release Jesus

Pilate makes an offer to the crowd that he will release Jesus as part of his customary “Passover Pardon” of one prisoner. But to his surprise instead of not only rejecting it, they ask for Barabbas, a robber, to be released by Pilate instead.

This event begins John’s account of the third phase of Jesus’s Civil Trial. This phase is called “Pilate’s Judgment.” 

The parallel Gospel accounts of this event are Matthew 27:17-18, Matthew 27:20-22, Mark 15:8-13, and Luke 23:18-21.

John’s narration skips from the first phase of Jesus’s civil trial all the way to the third phase. The skip occurs after John narrates that Pilate went back outside the Praetorium after interviewing Jesus and declared to the Jews: “I find no guilt in Him” (John 18:38). 

Pilate’s declaration of Jesus’s innocence in John 18:38 was stated near the end of the first phase of Jesus’s civil trial. Pilate’s offer in the next verse, John 18:39, was almost certainly proposed in the third phase of Jesus’s civil trial. Therefore, John leaps in time between verse 38 and 39.

From combining all the Gospel accounts, the three phases of Jesus’s civil trial were:

  1. Jesus’s Arraignment before Pilate
    (Matthew 27:1-2, 11-14, Mark 15:1-5, Luke 23:1-7, John 18:28-38)
  2. Jesus’s Audience before Herod Antipas
    (Luke 23:8-12)
  3. Pilate’s Judgment
    (Matthew 27:15-26, Mark 15:6-15, Luke 23:13-25, John 18:38-19:16)

Without Matthew, Mark, and especially Luke, we probably would not know that John leaped in time between verses 38 and 39. As is often the case throughout much of his Gospel, John focuses on the dialogue—the exchange of words and ideas—rather than the external circumstances. This appears to be the case here as he narrates Jesus’s civil trial. Among other things, what John mainly gives us that adds to the other three Gospel accounts are two extended interviews between Pilate and Jesus. 

Before we skip ahead to the moment John describes beginning in John 18:39, we will first look at the events John overlooks between verses 38 and 39, which the other three Gospels record. If you’d like to skip ahead to the specific commentary for these verses scroll down to John’s Account of Pilate’s Second Attempt to Release Jesus.

The Events of Jesus’s Civil Trial which took place between John 18:38 and John 18:39

Following Pilate’s investigation personally interviewing Jesus in regard to the Jews’ accusations against Him (John 18:33-38a), he declared Jesus “innocent” (John 18:38b). The trial should have immediately ended, and Jesus released to go free. Obviously, this did not happen. 

The chief priests and elders protested Pilate’s verdict and continued to shout many accusations against Jesus. Jesus remained silent as they did this, to the amazement of the Roman governor (Matthew 27:12-14, Mark 15:3-5). Luke tells us that the chief priests kept on insisting that Jesus had been stirring up people all over Judea with His teaching, starting from Galilee (Luke 23:5). This gave Pilate the idea to send Jesus to Herod Antipas, who was the tetrarch of the district of Galilee, and let him rule on the matter. And that is what Pilate did (Luke 23:6-7). This ended the first phase of Jesus’s civil trial.

The second phase of Jesus’s civil trial took place in Herod’s court. Initially Herod was happy to see Jesus, whom he had heard so much about. The tetrarch wanted to see Him perform a miracle (Luke 23:8). But Jesus remained silent before the ruler who beheaded His cousin, John the Baptist (Luke 23:9). The priests and scribes standing there continued to accuse Him (Luke 23:10), and Herod began to mock Jesus, dressing Him up in a gorgeous robe that resembled the apparel of an heir in waiting, and returned Jesus to Pilate (Luke 23:11). This ended the second phase of Jesus’s civil trial.

The third phase of Jesus’s civil trial resumed back at the Praetorium where Pilate resided, probably sometime around 8:00 a.m. (Mark writes that Jesus was on the cross at 9:00 a.m. Mark 15:25). According to the Jewish calendar, the date was likely Nisan 15—the first day of Unleavened Bread. By Roman reckoning, the day was probably a Friday.

To learn more about the timing and sequencing of these events, see The Bible Says’ “Timeline: The Final 24 Hours of the Life of Jesus.” 

The third phase of Jesus’s civil trial began with Pilate summarizing the first two phases and their results before the crowds (Luke 23:13-14a), which had now expanded to include a number of ordinary Jews who noticed the unusual proceedings so early in the morning. Pilate reminded everyone that both he, as the governor of Judea, and Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, found no fault in Jesus (Luke 23:14a-15). Once again, Jesus’s civil trial should have ended here with Pilate releasing Jesus. Once again, it continued. 

Pilate seemed to recognize how Jesus’s accusers would not be satisfied with the governor simply letting Him go. So, he made them an extraordinary gesture as a way to appease them. Pilate offered to punish Jesus with a Roman flogging before he let Him go, even though Jesus was thrice declared innocent (Luke 23:16). Apparently, the Jews rejected Pilate’s extraordinary (and illegal) gesture. 

This extraordinary gesture to brutally punish an innocent Man was Pilate’s first attempt to release Jesus. 

Pilate appears to have gotten the idea for his second attempt to release Jesus from some among the crowd (Mark 15:8), who possibly were sympathetic to Jesus. It appears that they asked the governor to use his customary “Passover Pardon” as a way to release Jesus. And it is at this moment where John appears to resume his account of Jesus’s civil trial.

John’s Account of Pilate’s Second Attempt to Release Jesus

Pilate considered and decided to try the crowd’s suggestion as an attempt to release Jesus, whom he had already declared to be innocent (Mark 15:8). What was suggested was that he use the governor’s customary release of any one prisoner for the Jews during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Matthew 27:15).

Pilate said to the crowds: But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover; do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews? (v 39). 

Pilate mockingly referred to Jesus by the tile: the King of the Jews. This title was part of the accusation leveled against Him (Luke 23:2) and it was the chief concern Pilate interviewed Jesus about (John 18:33, 37). Jesus was probably still in His “kingly apparel” that Herod had dressed Him in, which made Him an easy target to mock. Pilate’s expression was also likely intended as a sarcastic insult toward the chief priests and elders who were accusing Jesus. 

When he asked this, Pilate was apparently hoping that those in the crowd who suggested this idea to him would be vocal enough to allow him to release Jesus while redirecting the priests’ anger toward others, not just himself.

After announcing this custom and making this offer, Matthew tells us that Pilate sat down to give the crowd a moment to consider. But, “while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message” warning her husband to “have nothing to do with [the conviction or punishment of] that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him” (Matthew 27:19).

To learn more about Pilate’s wife’s request, see The Bible Says commentary for Matthew 27:19.

This delay and interruption apparently gave Jesus’s enemies enough time to maneuver. The chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds to ask for an alternative prisoner to be released instead (Matthew 27:20, Mark 15:11). When Pilate finally gave his ear to listen to the crowd’s reply, he did not get the answer he was expecting:

So they cried out again, saying, “Not this Man, but Barabbas” (v 40a).

The crowd responded to Pilate that they did not want him to release this man whom Pilate offered—Jesus. But instead, they wanted him to release for them another prisoner who was called Barabbas. (More about Barabbas in a moment). Luke also captures the crowds’ response this way: “Away with this man, and release for us Barabbas!” (Luke 23:18).

It is worth mentioning that the only time Barabbas is mentioned in John’s Gospel is either by the narrator or the crowds—but never Pilate. (John 18:40). It is the same in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 15:7, 15:11, 15:15). Barabbas is named only once in Luke’s Gospel, and it is in the crowds’ reply (Luke 23:18). This seems to indicate that Pilate never intended to offer to release Barabbas when he first made the offer to release Jesus as his “Passover Pardon.” And that it was the crowds who reframed Pilate’s offer to include Barabbas. Apparently caught off guard by their response, Pilate accepted their reframing and asked them to restate their answer.

“But the governor said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’
And they said, ‘Barabbas.””
(Matthew 27:21)

The crowd demanded that Pilate release Barabbas, instead of Jesus.

Pilate, however, was still, “wanting to release Jesus,” and he “addressed them again” (Luke 23:20). 

Matthew and Mark seem to have recorded what the governor said when he addressed them again:

“Pilate said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?’”
(Matthew 27:22a)

“Pilate said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?’”
(Mark 15:12)

The crowd’s response as recorded by Luke was: they kept on calling out, saying, “Crucify, crucify Him!” (Luke 23:21)—See also Matthew 27:22b and Mark 15:13).

The Gospels’ depictions of the crowds’ demand—“Crucify, Crucify Him!” (Luke 23:21)—do not seem to describe a unified chant, but a veritable storm of shouts and screams from all sides demanding that Pilate crucify Jesus. “Crucify, Crucify Him!”—they kept on calling out. Their rage and shouts of “Crucify, Crucify Him!” filled Pilate’s ears and shook his nerve. 

Their unrelenting cries of “Crucify Him!” was the crowd’s insistence that Pilate execute Jesus by means of Roman crucifixion. 

Roman crucifixion entailed fastening its victims to a raised wooden beam by the wrists (often with nails) and hang them there until they died. Archeological evidence also shows that the ankles were sometimes nailed, not together on the front of the cross, but separately on either side of its main beam. Crucifixions were done in public places with the crimes of each criminal posted for all to see as a way to be deter future crime. Criminals would sometimes agonize on their crosses for days before they died from suffocation, dehydration, or cardiac arrest. The entire process was designed to be torturous and humiliating and serve as a deterrent for breaking Roman law. 

To learn more about this brutal form of execution, see The Bible Says article, “Bearing the Cross: Exploring the Unimaginable Suffering of Crucifixion.”

Now we can return to the figure of Barabbas.

John provides minimal information about Barabbas through a short interjection:

Now Barabbas was a robber (v 40b).

He was one who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection made in the city, and for murder (v 19).

Matthew refers to Barabbas as a “notorious prisoner” (Matthew 27:16). Mark writes that Barabbas “had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection” (Mark 15:7). Luke says: “He was one who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection made in the city, and for murder” (Luke 23:19). Taken all together, Barabbas was a convicted insurrectionist who also committed murder and robbery. His crimes were well known to the people, and they greatly disliked him. 

Barabbas may not have been this prisoner’s actual name. It may have been a nickname, or some other term used to describe him.

The word Barabbas has Aramaic origins and it means “son of the father” (Bar = “son”; Abbas = “of the father”). 

Thus, this notorious prisoner was “called Barabbas” (Matthew 27:16)—the same title as Jesus and the same position as every person in their unredeemed state. Barabbas was at the same time a figurative “everyman” and also shared a description similar to Jesus.

  • Barabbas—“son of the father” like Jesus, who is “Son of the Father.” 
  • Barabbas—“son of a father” is a kind of everyman who represents every sinner.

Interestingly, church tradition suggests that Barabbas’s given name was “Jesus” (for instance, this was taught by one of the early church fathers, Origen). Some late Greek manuscripts of Matthew 27:16 and 27:17 read: Ἰησοῦν Βαραββᾶν (“Jesus, Barabbas”). 

If this tradition is correct, the notorious prisoner and the Messiah each had the same name and the same title: “Jesus, son of the father.” And if Pilate’s two prisoners (the notorious insurrectionist and the Messiah) both shared the same name—“Jesus”—then it makes sense why Matthew wrote “a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas” (Matthew 27:16). 

It also gives further insight into Pilate’s prolonged description of Jesus when he makes his offer to the people. The governor asks: “Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” (Matthew 27:17). Again, some Greek manuscripts of this verse literally read: “Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?” 

Pilate may have been asking the people: “Which Jesus do you wish me to release for you: Jesus, who is called Barabbas; or Jesus, who is called Christ?”

Moreover, Barabbas was guilty of the crime of insurrection, the same crime Jesus was declared innocent of, but is nevertheless condemned and crucified. 

Insurrection against God’s rule is also the basic source of all sin. Lucifer fell when he sought to ascend to the throne of the Most High (Isaiah 14:12-14). Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s good command when they saw that the fruit of the forbidden tree would make them like God (Genesis 3:5-6). We commit this same basic sin of insurrection and lawlessness every time we follow our own sin nature instead of submitting to God’s perfect rule (1 John 3:4). 

When Pilate releases Barabbas (Matthew 27:26a, Mark 15:15a, Luke 23:25a), Barabbas’s life is literally saved in a physical and legal sense. His liberation from Roman prison is a result of Jesus taking his place and being punished for his crimes. In this sense, Barabbas (who was guilty of insurrection) becomes a tangible illustration that Jesus (who was innocent and falsely condemned of insurrection) was sent to save sinners. 

It is fitting that Jesus (the Savior of the world) literally dies in place of a criminal. The moment he is pardoned, Barabbas instantly becomes a living breathing depiction of one who is saved by Jesus spiritually, through being given a new birth (John 3:3). Barabbas’s earthly physical salvation is a graphic picture of everyone who is saved spiritually from the penalty of sin—spiritual death and separation from God—through the death of Jesus who died on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21). 

Matthew’s thematic narration of these events links Pilate’s offer between Jesus and Barabbas to the two goats on the Day of Atonement. 

To learn more about this thematic linkage, see The Bible Says article: “Jesus and Barabbas: Matthew’s Thematic Connection of Pilate’s Offer to The Day of Atonement.”

The crowd had made their choice: Release for us Barabbas and crucify Jesus.

Peter, in the book of Acts, says that the Jews “acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also” (Acts 3:17) when they called for the Messiah to be crucified. Their ignorance did not make them innocent, but the Jews, like the soldiers who nailed Him to the cross, did not know what they were doing when they asked for Pilate to crucify Him. Jesus also said that the people did not know what they were doing, and asked His Father to forgive them (Luke 23:34). 

The next section of scripture details Pilate’s brutal response (John 19:1-4).

Biblical Text

39 But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover; do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?” 40 So they cried out again, saying, “Not this Man, but Barabbas.” Now Barabbas was a robber.

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